The ideal school lunch for your child, according to a dietitian.

With a return to school imminent, many parents are literally counting down the hours until life becomes relatively sane again, well, at least between the hours of 9-3pm anyway. With a new school year also comes the annual school lunchbox recommendations, in which committed, organised mums are thought to spend hours preparing marinated chicken drumsticks, mini frittatas and muffins for their brood in the hope that their lunchbox ticks all nutritional standards.

One of the biggest, yet less frequently mentioned issues with kid’s lunchboxes is that the bulk of the foods commonly included are high carbohydrate in nature. The average lunchbox filled with fruit, snacks, muesli bars, plain white bread sandwiches and fruit juice is more than 60% carbohydrate.

Now while growing, active kids do need plenty of energy, energy in the form of processed, high sugar carbs such as fruit snacks, juices, snack bars and biscuits are digested quickly, result in a high release of the hormone insulin and leaves kids prone to overeating and weight gain long term. A second less is the effect that these foods have on teeth – with sticky fruit twists, snack bars with icing and confectionery and juices exposing the teeth to sugars which increase the risk of tooth decay.

A nutritionally balanced lunchbox can be divided into four core sections: a wholegrain sandwich or wrap for energy; a protein based snack for key nutrients and fullness, fruit and more importantly vegetables for fibre and vitamins and a snack food that has some nutritional benefit.

Image via iStock.

Most importantly, busy children need plenty of water for optimal hydration, particularly in the warmer months when small children are at high risk of dehydration – there is no place for fruit based drinks in the school lunchbox. Not only does this mix help to achieve a balance between fuel rich foods but it also helps to keep the intake of high sugar foods to a minimum, helping to prevent weight issues and tooth decay long term.

1. Wholegrain sandwich or wrap

Where possible choose grain or brown bread or you may find that wraps are a preferred option as they are easier to eat and less likely to go soggy. Always try and add a protein rich filling to your child’s sandwich – egg, lean meat or cheese or some good options. Protein rich fillings offer a number of important nutrients including iron, zinc and Vitamin B12. Light salads such as lettuce can also be added or alternatively try packing some carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes in small contains to be munched on throughout the day. If you are worried about the freshness, pack an extra ice block or fresh sandwiches the night before.

2. Fruit & at least 1 vegetable

Fresh fruit is always preferable to dried, fruit sticks or juice as it contains fewer kilojoules, more fibre and teaches children the importance of eating fresh food. While the fruit does contain natural sugars, the overall lunchbox balance will ensure that this amount is keep controlled. Adding a vegetable in addition to a fruit helps to get children used to eating lower sugar, nutrient rich vegetables so always add some cut up carrot, cucumber, baby tomatoes, snow peas or red capsicum to your child’s lunch, whether they eat it or not.

"Fresh fruit is always preferable to dried, fruit sticks or juice." Image via iStock.

3. Protein snack

Protein is the nutrient that tends to be missed in school lunchboxes and is often replaced with extra fruit, juice or more snacks.  Protein rich foods including low fat dairy provides calcium and a number of other key nutrients including magnesium and phosphorous which all growing children need daily. Great protein rich lunchbox fillers include cheese sticks, yogurt tubes; milk protein based snacks bars and flavoured milk poppers are popular with children and are also low GI, which helps to keep kids fuller for longer after eating them. Cheese is particular is a great lunchbox snack for kids as consuming it after eating carbohydrate rich foods such as bread and fruit will help to prevent tooth decay by helping to neutralize the acid in the mouth that can come from juice drinks and refined sugars.

4. Nutritious Snack

Busy, growing bodies do need energy but they need good quality energy and many processed snack and muesli bars available do not contain a lot of nutrition for many kilojoules. While children do not necessarily need packaged snack foods, not providing them may see them start to swap their lunchbox contents for other, more appealing options and hence providing a limited amount of snack food may prevent the swapping issue so, aim to provide just one packaged muesli or snack bar in your child’s lunchbox each day and try and choose options that have < 400kJ (100 calories). Popcorn, small wholegrain snack bars or homemade banana bread or mini muffins are all relatively good options.

5. Fluid

Water should always be the drink of choice for children. Fruit juice, soft drinks, sports drinks and cordials are high in sugar and are not appropriate everyday drinks for children.